Published: June 3rd 2012June 3rd 2012 Day 229 Sunday 27th May
Poison Dart Frog
On our way to the Oriente (as the eastern jungle is called in Ecuador) so we were out of bed at dawn and doing our last lot of packing. Had conflicting information on how long this trip would take so we wanted to make sure we got to the bus terminal early. Grabbed a taxi from around the corner to Terminal Quitumbe which is about 40 minutes away, this is a big modern terminal with lots of bus companies. We found the right area and chose the next bus leaving which was 8.30am the ticket seller said that the bus had a toilet on board which is good considering that it is about 8 hours. We found the bus and jumped on to discover is was a bit grubby and there was no toilet, I hardly ever have to use the toilet on the buses but it is a security blanket. Oh well it should stop for lunch so it will be right.
About 30 minutes into the trip we stopped to pick up three passengers and a hawker nothing different there, but quickly we realised there was something dodgy about the setup. Two
The amazing sky over Laguna Grande
of the passengers sat behind us and the third one (clean cut appearance) appeared to be checking out the bags in the storage above our heads and finally sat down somewhere behind us. The hawker came along selling chewing gum and when he got to us he became pushy trying to sell it we said NO firmly and he continued to the back. Next thing he was back behind us pushing the gum in our faces and then threw two packets on the ground and tried to lean over us to get it, all not very subtle as he was checking out and reaching for our bag. In the meantime the two behind us where doing something and banging the seat and reaching around and above to our other backpacks, while they thought we were distracted. We grabbed the gum and Scott said firmly NO again, then the clean cut young man came up to us and tried to grab our camera bag indicating that it was not safe where it was and I had to push his arm away as the hawker joined in. Scott spoke forcefully while I blocked them and they soon realised that they were not
getting anywhere and all four went to the front of the bus and got off. Thankfully they were amateurs and we could see through their scam, but it is annoying and makes you on your guard.
The rest of the trip was uneventful except for the dramatic scenery with amazing waterfalls huge gorges and fast flowing river, which we had to cross countless times. The lunch stop was at an uninspiring café so we walked across to the bakery and got “empanadas” they had sugar on top and something yellow inside that was savoury maybe cheese not sure. We arrived at Lago Argio at 4.30pm and went looking for a hotel and we chose one near the meeting point for the tour tomorrow. The hotel is large with a pool the rooms where OK and the shower was hot but the room smelt of damp. We looked around town but it is seedy and caters to the oil industry in the area so there was not much to see. We had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant and went back to our room for an early night. Day 230 Monday 28th May
We had breakfast and
Shelley in the river
slowly made our way on the street as we were not meeting till 9.30am and wanted to go to the chemist first. As we walked past the meeting point at the other hotel we saw a man with driver on his shirt so we showed him our trip details and he said yes leaving in 5 minutes it was only 9.00am. We quickly grabbed what we needed and jumped on the bus, and we were instantly underway. We collected 2 more people from the airport making us 7 in total on the bus. We had an English couple, Clare and Rich, a Dutch woman Margaret and her son whose name meant Brave in English and a young American woman Anna. Along the way the driver got a call informing him that someone was left behind (another Claire), so we should have left at 9.30am and he was too eager. The trip took about 2 hours to the river which is where we had lunch and Claire, a lovely woman from Sydney, finally caught up with us after having had to get a lift there. Over lunch we got to meet our guide Jairo who will be looking after us over
Sunset over Laguna Grande
the next 5 days. It was then into the motorised canoe for the journey down the river and into the Cuyabeno reserve. This is a “protected” (more about that later) reserve that covers 6034 sq kms along the Rio Cuyabeno. The area is very unique as it is in fact a flooded rainforest and gets seasonally inundated in water. The rivers swell, lagoons and lakes appear and vast areas are submerged. Tannins from the decomposing foliage are released into the water turning it a rich dark chocolate colour, making this a very unique experience. Come the dry season and al the water drains into rivers that flow into the Amazon and out into the Atlantic on the other side of the continent. Jairo our guide explained how the Laguna Grande, which is presently 6 metres deep, it empties completely and you can walk across the bottom. This area is abundant in wildlife and home to indigenous groups like the Siona, Secoya, Cofan, Quichua and Shuar, all who live a customary way of life.
We took it slowly down the river so we could start to see the wildlife, and we were lucky to see a baby anaconda about 1.5
metres long; woolly, squirrel, yellow handed titty & monksaki monkeys; and an array of birds. One of the squirrel monkeys jumped from one branch across the river to another branch it looked like it was going to fall right onto our heads and just caught the branch at the last minute.
We arrived at the lodge about 4pm and were shown our cabins and were back in the canoe by 5.00pm to see the river dolphins which swam in the distant and teased us as we hoped they would come closer. The canoe then headed to the Laguna Grande where we went swimming, apparently this area is safe and the anacondas and caiman do not attack the tourist! The water is almost black and anything is reflected like a mirror, once you are in the water you can only see people’s heads and nothing below and it is a bit eerie swimming at sunset here. The hardest thing is getting back into the canoe as I have no upper body strength it was very ungraceful event. Once we were all back in the boat the sun was just about gone and there were only the last rays of light,
Shelley with an ant stich
we were now going to look for caiman at the river edge. They remained elusive for a long time making us feel better about swimming in their water, but just when we began to give up we saw a black caiman about 2 metres long. He was very nice and just sat there for ages while we watched and took photos and then when he got bored he took off.
We arrived back at the lodge at 7.40pm for a quick shower before dinner at 8.00pm with 3 tarantulas above our heads, maybe they heard the food was good here. By 10.00pm we decided to go to bed and get some sleep, as we were leaving Rich jumped and screamed which made us all do the same thinking it was a tarantula, but much to his relief it was only a frog on his shoulder. We only just got into our room and it started to pour rain, it was great to hear it the sounds outside our room. Day 231 Tuesday 29th May
Breakfast at 8.00am this morning and glad to say we have no unwelcomed visitors in our room overnight.
Crossing the swamp
the canoe down the river and were let off to do a 2 hour jungle walk where we saw an array of ants including a Bullet Ant which is extremely toxic and causes fever and pain. Jairo our guide asked for a volunteer and for some reason I said yes and I got an Army Ants pinchers into my thumb this is what the locals use as stiches. It really sticks in and was removed later by prising it off with a knife, serves me right for volunteering. Jairo explained about lots of different medicinal plants and how they are used to treat ailments like diarrhoea and even insect repellents. Later we saw a tiny frog that when used in a poison darts can kill 5 men, hard to believe something so beautiful can be so dangerous.
After trudging around in the mud for a while we then came to the adventure part of the tour when we had to get across a swamp. We had to go single file across the muddy lagoon balancing on a narrow fallen log that had settled into the mud at the bottom. The water for most of us stayed just beneath the
lip of our gum boots but some copped a boot full of water. The trick was keeping our balance when a slight slip would result in an instant mud bath. For a lot of us we discovered just how bad our balance is and we all had our scares but somehow made it across without falling in. We continued our walk in a light rain through the rainforest till we returned to our motorised canoe which kept breaking down on the way back. This actually was a good chance to float down the river and listen to the sounds of the jungle, I had thought the noise would be deafening with all the birds and monkeys but it is mostly still and quiet.
Lunch was at 1.30pm and it was another 3 course meal – soup, chicken and rice, and fruit for dessert. It was then siesta time till 4.00pm so everyone could chill out and catch up on reading.
Back in the canoe at 4.00pm for piranha fishing there are 5 girls (Claire, Anna, Margaret, Clare and me) and 4 boys (Rich, Brave, Scott and the guide Jairo) we do not like to brag but the girls
Scott and Shelley in their dancing shoes
all caught a piranha – girls 5 boys nil. Note all piranhas were released back into the river. After our success we motored to a spot where we could get onto shore for our night walk. Within a short time we came across a Goliath Tarantula which was bigger than my hand, an amazing sight. The deeper we walked into the jungle the more insects and other spiders we saw including a banana spider that even our guide would not put his hand near, as it has a very unpleasant bite that can be fatal. As we started this walk he said that he would need a volunteer later and this time now was upon us and after seeing the size of some of the spiders and insects nobody leaped forward. I then thought “in for a penny in for a pound” and said I would do it whatever it was, Jairo then left the path and returned a short while later with a scorpion spider. He held the spider by one of its long antennas and demonstrated how it can snap a twig with its powerful mandibles. This was all ok till he asked me to close my eyes
The first fish Shelley has ever caught - Piranha
and he placed it on my face. I guess he said “trust me” and I had to, it was not scary and it did not move too much but I definitely could feel it. I think this will be the end of my (Shelley) volunteering for this tour. After about an hour we met the boat and piled back on board for the journey back to the lodge and dinner and tonight a beer for being so brave. Day 232 Wednesday 30th May
Today we went a different direction on the river to a local village San Victoriano (Puerto Bolivar) where 20 families live to see their way of life and to have yucca bread made for us. On our arrived we were greeted by “Nachos” a woolly monkey who seems very sweet but very quickly began biting people and later ripped Anna’s earing out and tried to eat it. Anna managed to retrieve it with no help from our guide, but Nachos bad behave continued through the visit but more about that later.
Lucia the lady making the bread got the fire going in the kitchen and then we all headed to the garden
Piranha with big gnashing teeth
to harvest the yucca where she skilfully peeled them with a machete. The next process was to wash and grate them at this stage it looked like cottage cheese, then this is placed into a long woven mat that is twisted and twisted till all the water is out and it is powder consistency. It is then sifted and the powder without anything else added is put straight into a hot flat pan and pressed with a bowl to form a flat bread and flipped to cook the other side and it is ready for eating. During the process we all could try the steps if we liked and there was a small basin with water to wash our hands but after Nachos stuck his head in and started to drink we decided it may not be so clean anymore. The bread was similar to lightly toasted white bread and we ate it with tuna or jam it was quite good.
Jairo called to the village Shaman’s young daughter who is about 6 years old to ask where her father was and this is where Nachos showed his true colours. As she was talking to Jairo the monkey attacked
Shelley with a new friend a Scorpion Spider
her biting and pulling her hair and just would not let go, this is the reason I do not trust monkeys and the guide did not help until he was told to by people in the group. Nachos may soon be the main ingredient in the dish of nachos for attacking the Shaman’s daughter. We all walked over to a large hut where the shaman does his rituals, here he explained how he became a shaman and what it involves. We were again asked for a volunteer but not this time, Claire and Brave did it this time and it involved being hit with a branch of a tree that causes your skin to come out in welts and become very red with the shaman blowing smoke over you and chanting words. Note the welts and redness only last a couple of hours. This was very interesting and the shaman had a serenity to him even when Nachos tried to steal the limelight and had to be locked out. We then tried our hand at the blow pipe and trying to hit a target with a dart but we would all starve nobody hit the target. We had lunch at
the village and then brought some bracelets from the community. On the way back we saw Owl and Black Tamarin monkeys.
We arrived back at the lodge for the afternoon siesta before going back out on the river at 5.00pm for a swim and watch the sunset. As dark fell we began to look for caimans and snakes, in one section we found a caiman that came out and showed us his beautiful smile.
Over dinner we had a good talk with Jairo about the indigenous people in the reserve and the increasing pressure of maintaining it. According to Jairo the tribes in the park are allowed to hunt and kill whatever they like including endangered animals like Jaguars and Woolly monkeys, and this is generally done with guns not blow darts. We can’t understand why this is allowed to continue when stopping it would only mean a change of diet for the tribes, not a change of culture. The biggest threat to the park however, is that it sits on large reserves of oil. Between 1964 and 1992 5.3 billion litres of oil was extracted from the northern Oriente by Texaco Oil (now called Chevron). Whilst doing
Cute little frog
this they intentionally dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic oil wastewater into the rainforest including 18 million gallons of crude – almost twice what was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. A long protracted court case has continued over the years trying to get Texaco to clean up the mess but they have continually fought the attempts to have them clean up the mess and as yet little has been achieved. The Government has shifted the boundaries of the park several times and although it is supposed to be protected Jairo claims that a lot of the indigenous people do deals directly with oil companies and allow them on “their land” within the park. We never saw oil tankers, oil wells or anything else like it within the park (a lot of that outside the park though) but we were only in one small corner of the reserve. Unsure if oil is being pumped within the park or if the contamination continues but we got the impression that this area walks the knife edge and feel it may not be around for much longer. Day 233 Thursday 31st May
Well we were going to go bird watching
Nachos with Anna and Margaret
at 6am providing it wasn’t raining so when the rain started at 5am we just knew we would be sleeping in. The rain continued till about 9 by which time we had missed our opportunity but we still had tomorrow morning, well at least for Claire, Shelley and me, as the others were returning today. Before setting off on our daily adventure we said our goodbyes to Rich, his wife Clare, Margaret and her son and of course Anna who had only booked a 4 day instead of a 5 day tour. Once we had said our farewells we set off in a motorised boat with our guide and the remnants of another group which we dropped off on an island so they could do a nature walk. With them gone we were taken down stream to a remote location and transferred to another canoe which we then used to paddle off to see areas of the park that was inaccessible by powered boats. The paddle canoe was by far the best way to see the park as it allowed us to actually hear the jungle rather than just hearing the noisy outboard motor roaring. We headed down the wide
Shelley at Lunch with the usual crowd
river and then turned down narrow tributaries till we came out in to a large lake that motorboats are not allowed onto, so it was a lovely spot to paddle around till we stopped for a spot of piranha fishing once more. At this spot we all managed to bag a piranha even me (Scott) and couldn’t resist picking it up, although I refrained from giving it a Rex Hunt kiss.
From here we took a long meandering paddle back to the point where we had first started and along the way spotted a three toed sloth high up in a tree. These are a difficult animal to spot and I am sure we would have had little chance of seeing one in the motorised boat. We could have got a lift back on the motorboat but we were enjoying how paddle so much that we stuck with it and paddled all the way back to the lodge and arrived back at 1.30 for lunch.
We had a short break in the afternoon and were going to head out again for a swim, watch the sunset and then caiman spotting with our guide Jairo but we had a
change of plans at the last minute. A new group had arrived and Jairo had to look after them and so we were handed over to the other guide and his small group. To protect this guy’s identity I will call him Juan and I am unsure how to put it nicely on what we all thought of Juan, other than to call him a wanker, which is probably the best way I can put it. With time the guy had potential to be a good guide but I doubt he would live that long. By the end of the night we were drawing straws on who would hold his head under water, preferably smeared in blood near the piranhas. The night started with us leaving at 4 and heading once more downstream with Juan pointing out the various birds that he spotted and us seeing a lot more that he missed. Instead of us swimming we went piranha fishing once more as his small group hadn’t done that yet. This was our third go at it so we were less than enthusiastic but Juan tried to over compensate for it by yahooing and carrying on like a complete idiot.
Scott with his catch
He had this annoying habit of finishing every sentence with a woooooo, like “lets go fishing woooo”, “here comes the rain wooooooo”. I just wanted to punch him in the face and go “did that hurt woooooo”. He started our fishing exercise by stating that the only way you can catch piranhas is by standing rather than sitting. Collectively by this stage we had caught 7 piranhas sitting we found this information rather useful. He quickly endeared himself further by catching a piranha and flinging it onto our seat between me and Shelley. Admittedly it was tiny but they do have razor sharp teeth and we weren’t keen to be bitten. Thankfully from our reaction he knew not to try that stunt again but he continued to grate on us like finger nails down a chalk board.
Juan and Claire caught a few fish, which were mostly small, but the new group had no luck and then the rain came that added to every ones joyful mood. At this point everyone but our fearless leader gave up on the fishing and he decided we should move onto look for Dolphins. None were seen and the rain became torrential. The
ponchos they gave us were less than waterproof and in fact wearing a canvas sack would have given us better protection. I cannot explain how miserable you can feel sitting in the middle of a lake at sunset in rain, but we were happy to continue with the night if the new group wanted to continue. Next on the agenda was waiting an hour for full sunset to seek out snakes, this was something we had already done and we kept insisting the decision to wait rested with the new group who hadn’t yet done it. They thankfully for us were over the night and wanted to get back and so we headed home. To give Juan his due he did try and spot snakes on the way back and once back at the camp discovered a small snake near the camp and took it around for everyone to see, like I said he did have potential woooooo!
Over dinner we got to meet the new group and they seemed like a great bunch of people. Before turning in for the night we discovered a couple of new tenants in our room, a small tarantula and a huge cricket,
An Anhinga - snake neck bird Drying out
thankfully both seemed well behaved and didn’t seem interested in sharing our bed. Day 234 Friday 1st June
Thankfully this morning the rain stopped and so we were up at 5.30 reading ourselves for the bird watching expedition. We were all excited about our final activity at Cuyabeno and we had Jairo back with us so we had potential for a great morning. Unfortunately once again the wildlife was fairly thin on the ground and air. We spotted some more monkeys and some toucans but there really wasn’t a lot of wow factor in our last trip. I truly believe a lot of the problem may stem with the locals still killing the wildlife for food and an increase in motorised traffic (which tourists like us are responsible for) on the river which would only drive the animals further inland. We all returned back to the camp for our final breakfast at 8 before packing or bags and preparing for our departure.
At 10 our boat arrived and Claire, us, the other 3 from the other group along with Juan and another guide jumped onboard and departed our lodge. It was a 2 hour boat
journey back to where the bus would pick us up and along the way we met up with two other boats crowded with tourists. It was amazing watching the huge amount of wash generated by the boats and wondered how bad it must be for the shoreline of the river. The boats used are flat bottomed with large outboard motors on the back and sit very, very low in the water, and they speed along very fast. The river winds like a snake with the occasional straight section and as the boats corner the water meets the very edge of the boat. At one point on the journey back a boat that had been following behind us decided that he would overtake us on a bend and predictably the wash hit us at the very worst moment and a huge wave came over the side saturating Shelley and Claire, and filling the boat with water. I cannot describe just how angry we all were but when we finally did catch up with the boat further down the river when it had stopped to look at a snake, we gave the driver a complete earful. We probably should have held back
a bit as there was a mixed crowd in his boat but we were all furious. Our guide Juan was his useless self and didn’t really take on board how angry we were at the situation and only offered that we could report him to the ranger office at the drop off point. Of course when we finally got there he wanted to quickly shuttle us on the bus and leave but we stood our ground.
Juan flatly refused to be involved all help the girls with their complaint at the ranger’s office and so left them to proceed by themselves. Thankfully the rangers despite not speaking English were very helpful and the driver of our boat helped defuse the situation when a lady from the park managed to track down the offending driver and bring him over to the office, where he half heartedly apologised. We had good grounds to push the issue and see if he could have been fined or reprimanded over the issue as the girls had been saturated and potentially the boat could have been swamped or sunk by his stupidity. We accepted his apology and gave him some further harsh advice and left.
Our boat driver had understood that this was the best remedy while our idiot guide was too terrified to upset anyone and just had hid, if he had of spoken to the other driver and said just apologize it would have ended very quickly.
We boarded our bus at midday and headed off to Lago Agria and along the way decided to have our packed lunch from the lodge only to discover our bread roll had nothing more than mayonnaise on it. Got to Lago at 2 and we all quickly picked up our tickets for onward journeys. Claire got the 2.30 bus to Banos and we picked up tickets for the 2.45 bus back to Quito, meaning we would arrive around 11 at night. Our other option was to get a later bus that would get us to Quito around 5 in the morning, and thus we wouldn’t need accommodation for the night or we could spend the night in a hotel in Lago. In the end we just felt like we wanted to get moving.
At 2.30 we said farewell to Claire who took off to Banos and had been a great friend and a lot
Showing his credentials
of fun on this trip and hopefully we will bump into again along the trail or back in Sydney. Our bus took off right on time and was completely full, so we were very lucky to have got on board on such short notice. Cuyabeno had been really good and we had some great experiences here. We met some great people and saw everything we had hoped for especially the dolphins and tarantulas. Despite all that it was far from perfect, and there really wasn’t the abundance of wildlife that we had expected and in particular the birdlife. Part of this was possibly due to the indigenous groups hunting them and also the influx of tourists. We always enter these areas with high expectations that our presence has little or no impact but in the end we are left with the feeling that we are serious part of the problem. From what we saw, our lodge and neighbouring ones are run by guys with little regard or understanding for the environment. Sure the garbage is recycled, and the guides can identify birds, but there is very little understanding or empathy for the problems associated with the impact from humans in
The fin of a pink dolphin
the park. We asked our guide why they don’t stop the indigenous groups from killing the endangered jaguars in the park, and his response was that they had a right to do it and if there were no jaguars in the park the tourists would still come. On top of feeling like we were being treated like idiots for coming to a supposed protected reserve that wasn’t protected, we were also left with the feeling that we were part of the problem. At times we felt like we were camping with a bunch of teenagers who were more intent on scoring and having fun than actually consciously showing and protecting the fragile environment. No one could seem to understand that the park wasn’t just there so they could have a “great job” but was something important and should be protected for future generations. With increasing numbers of tourists, exploitation by oil companies and an uncontrolled killing of the wildlife this park will not see out the next hundred years….it is such a pity.
The bus journey was long and tiresome and we only had one stop around 7pm at a service station where everyone got off for dinner at
Jairo with Nachos
a nearby restaurant. We ended up buying dinner from guy walking around with an esky who sold us a warm hamburger with a cola drink for 1 dollar; tasted good so it was a great bargain. We arrived at Quito at 10.30 and we were dropped off on the outskirts of the Mariscal. We had our hostel booked for tomorrow night but not tonight as we hadn’t expected the early return, but decided to see if they had a vacancy. We could have easily walked the 6 blocks to the hostel but the Mariscal is very, very dodgy and so took the safe option and jumped into a taxi. Should have only cost a dollar but in the end it was 3, but it was worth it just to make sure we weren’t mugged. Unfortunately our hotel was booked out so we moved onto another nearby which was also booked out. Started to panic a bit, especially after the third one we came too was also booked out. Took the chance and wandered a few blocks to Rodriguez Street, which is quieter and has heaps of hostels. The first one we came too was booked out but a security guard
The yucca being grated
in the street directed us across the road to “Posada del Maple” hostel where we finally picked up a great room for $40.
It was 11pm and we were wide awake and keen to get a beer so decided to head out and see what we could find. As stated countless times Mariscal isn’t the safest place in the world and before leaving the hostel owner gave us the usual long warning about not carrying anything valuable with us. Out the front the security guard who we think is employed by the hostels to keep order in the street gave us a similar warning in Spanish. On the weekend nights most of the Mariscal is party central, with pumping night clubs and swarms of drunken revellers. We were keen on a quiet beer at a quiet bar and thankfully our security guard pointed us to a place on the corner that fitted the bill perfectly. There was a couple of guys in the bar playing guitars and only a handful of others so we ended up staying there till 1.30. At the end of the night we had a good chat with them as two were Colombians and another
Lucia making the yucca bread
Cuban. We could have stayed there till dawn but the day started catching up with us so we went home.
There are more photos below